Gardening with Chickens: Fall Cleanup and Fertilizing
Fall is the perfect time to let your chickens wander freely in your garden. Once you have harvested your crops, you can let your chickens in to clean up the remaining stalks, vines, and stems. They'll help by breaking up all the organic matter and incorporating it into the soil where it will continue to break down.
They also will happily gobble up any stray bugs they find as well as weed seeds and cool weather weeds like dandelions and chickweed that might be emerging. When you clean out your coop for the winter, be sure to spread the straw or shavings over your garden as mulch to keep the weeds down over the winter and help the soil retain it's moisture levels (especially beneficial if you plant garlic each fall).
While your chickens roam the garden munching on the leftovers, naturally they are also pooping. Chicken manure is a wonderful fertilizer for gardens, but since it's incredibly high in nitrogen it does need to age first (so it won't burn young plants) to kill off any pathogens such as E.coli or salmonella. However, letting it remain on the ground in the fall will give it the perfect amount of time to age for spring gardening. No need to clean up after your chickens!
Some interesting facts about chicken poop:
- It's higher in calcium than other types of manure, being made up of between 3.5 to 5% calcium, 1 to 2% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus and .5% potassium.
- A laying hen produces about 1/4 pound of manure a week.
- Chicken manure is about 70% moisture which will eventually evaporate as the manure dries.
- 'Normal' chicken poop can come in a wide variety of colors from shades of brown, black or greenish, depending on the hen's diet
One caution before opening up your garden to your flock: Members of the nightshade family, including white potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, contain the toxin solanine, which can be toxic to chickens in large amounts. The leaves and stems contain far more concentrated amounts than the vegetables, so to be on the safe side I would pull those plants out first before giving your chickens carte blanche.
After my last warm-weather harvest, I let the chickens have access to my garden to eat any remaining leaves or veggies. They help to pull up errant stems and stalks, turn the soil over, and fertilize it a bit. See, chickens can help you get read to plant your garden the following spring!
Information partially excerpted from Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for you and your Hens (Voyageur Press, 2016) available from Amazon.com and where ever books are sold.